The Volokh Conspiracy

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Should Colleges Force Students To Turn Their Cameras On?

What about students who do not wish to share their image?


Zoom University will soon be in session. I suspect many faculties are wrangling with an issue: should students be forced to turn their cameras on during class?

I can see several arguments in favor of requiring students to turn on their cameras. First, if students know they are being watched, they are more likely to stay in one place and pay attention. If cameras are off, students may "listen" to the class while moving around. Second, a professor is better able to gauge a student's understanding by looking at his or her face. I think facial cues are generally overrated, but some students make it very, very obvious when they are confused. That look of frustration does not come through with an avatar.

Third, the camera helps to ensure integrity of attendance rules. You could imagine a student logs into class, then goes for a walk outside. The camera helps the professor know that the student was seated for the entire class. However, what happens if a student has to go to the bathroom for a minute? If the professor sees an empty chair, should the student be marked absent? I have never cared when students go to the bathroom, but some professors prohibit it, unless the student has a medical excuse. I suppose those same professors could ask a student to sit in front of the computer for the entire class, absent some accommodation.

There are several arguments against requiring students to turn on their cameras. First, and foremost, is privacy. There is no easy way to prevent a Zoom meeting from being recorded. And anything recorded on Zoom can immediately be posted on social media. Some students may not want their voice and image blasted on the internet, for a host of reasons. I suspect that such actions may violate FERPA. As I understand it, class recordings in which a student can be identified is considered an educational recording. Therefore, posting a recording from a class may very well violate federal law, as well as other possible state laws.

Second, students may not wish to have their backgrounds visible to others. I have heard the phrase "space-shaming" used. Some students may have to take a Zoom class from a closet, or in a bathroom, or other environment that is not suitable for sharing. They do not wish to be shamed by their classmates, or worse, a professor who asks "Why are you sitting on a toilet." I think this concern is legitimate. Virtual backgrounds may help, but they are not perfect. When the student moves around, sometimes the real background pops up. Perhaps a green screen could help? But those are not always feasible to install. Students should be able to opt-out of being forced to turn on the camera.

Third, there is a technological problem. Generally, most internet connections have faster bandwidth for downloads than for uploads. That is, watching a streaming video is easier than streaming a video. When students have their cameras on, they are simultaneously uploading and downloading data. Last spring, many professors and students had to turn their cameras off so they would not be disconnected. That problem will likely recur. There is a way around this problem. Zoom lets you handle audio and video separately. You can listen and talk to the call over your regular phone line. That connection is stable, and does not depend on wifi. If for whatever reason, your internet connection drops, and the video cuts out, you can continue to listen and speak. I am going to recommend my students with bandwidth problems use this hybrid approach: dial the local phone number on your phone, and watch the video from your laptop.

I can see the pros and cons. I think the general policy should be that professors have the discretion to ask their students to turn on their cameras, but students can ask the professor to opt out. If there are concerns about attendance, a professor can drop an "easter egg" at a specific point to ensure the student watched the entire class.

Update: Here is a photo of the "green screen" I mentioned: